Freelancing and management : “Let’s change management instead of managing change”

Mar 2, 2020 · 6 min read
(Photo: David Plas)

This content was originally written in French by Laetitia Vitaud, author and future of work specialist.

D Denis Pennel is the author of Travail, la soif de liberté* : How start-uppers, slashers, co-workers are reinventing work, published last September by Eyrolles. In it, he describes the “new age” that work has now entered: “the change in work is that of a long march towards an ever greater freedom”. Today, new ways of exercising one’s professional activity are being invented outside of the traditional workplace.

For companies and managers, the rise of freelancers implies many changes. It is no longer possible to organize work schedules as in the days of Fordism. It is also no longer possible to manage in the same way. Freelancers are pushing for a radical transformation of management which also affects those who remain employees.

I asked Denis Pennel a few questions about these managerial transformations brought about by the rise of freelancing…

In your book, you write that “work in the 21st century is characterized by the end of the basic unit of time, place, and action”, and that the “Fordist workday” (Monday to Friday, with fixed working hours) only affects a minority of workers, about one-third of French employees on permanent contracts (called CDI in French). What does this imply for management?

When work was organized in what we call a Fordist way, so was management. That’s all collapsing today. Many companies still place a lot of value on presenteeism even though workers might be present without working: fewer and fewer people are working on the assembly line. All studies show that teleworkers are often more productive, but many managers are still afraid to accept telework and co-working spaces.

Attitudes will need to change so that employees with different profiles and statuses can be put on an equal footing.

Even when they want to change the way work is organized, managers are reluctant to integrate freelancers for fear of having them reclassified as employees. They cannot involve them any further or train them for this exact reason.

Yes, it is the notion of a “link of subordination” that needs to be reconsidered. It is detrimental to better protecting the self-employed. Labour laws, designed exclusively for employees, continue to be a barrier to developing employment relations. In France, as soon as a new form of work appears, we try to reduce it to salaried employment. When interim work developed in France, the sine qua non condition for it to be accepted was salaried employment. Because temporary workers were agency employees, temporary work was able to become socially and politically acceptable.

There is a certain irony here: the “link of subordination” first came from employers, but now the unions are the ones that defend it. One solution could be to create a third status, between the self-employed and the employee, as some European countries have already done (like Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, etc.).

The notion of “working time”, you say, is becoming less and less relevant for an ever-increasing number of different jobs. In what direction are we heading?

There is a growing confusion of genres between different timetables at work, so much so that the definition of “working time” should now be reconsidered. Working hours can no longer be counted in the same way as they used to be in factories. The “fixed-day rate” applied to certain managers could be extended to all managers. The danger, of course, is that managers will become too demanding in terms of the amount of work. How can a “reasonable workload” be defined when all workers are different and not all work is quantifiable in the same way? This is a real issue for social partners.

Because there is a growing gap between private and professional life, we will have to learn how to set up dividers between the two, in order to be clear about each person’s responsibility. This is where the idea of the “the right to disconnect” came from. In a context where people are constantly connect, how should I know when to stop? It is a matter of educating individuals and establishing a code of good practice. No, you can’t expect me to answer an email within half an hour.

How does one reconcile freedom and protection against abuses? The subject has become complex. Some companies, especially in Germany, have solved the issue by cutting off computer networks after a certain time.

What is 21st century management? You hope and pray for the advent of a “new management style that is no longer based on the mechanical obedience to orders but on the achievement of programmed objectives”. What do you mean by this?

Most individuals know how to manage themselves. However, they need meaning and direction. We will always need leaders, at all levels. Peter Drucker once said, “A big part of what we call management is making it hard to work”. This is still true today: management is most often counterproductive. Employees are being asked to spend more and more time reporting on their work. The business world has become more bureaucratic through increased reporting, quality standards, and process-oriented production methods.

The more we talk about “ freedom from work “ and the more autonomy we have, the greater the discomfort grows in companies. Work is the “gulag”, as you write, for most employees. Why is that?

These contradictory directives are creating a growing unease. While workers are asked to be flexible and autonomous, never before has their work environment been so standardized and rigid. “Employee, be free and autonomous, but continue following instructions and orders from above!” It’s easy to understand why employees alternate between burn outs and bore outs. The gap between workers’ expectations and the reality of what they experience in companies has never been greater.

Part of the explanation lies in the rise of Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism and our economy’s financialization. Leaders have therefore developed a short-term and financial vision of management in companies. Power has been confiscated by majority shareholders, who glorify “shareholder value” to the detriment of “partnership value”, which recognizes two types of investors in a company: labor investors and capital investors.

Rick Wartzman speaks of the “end of loyalty” and the breakdown of contracts between companies and employees. But shouldn’t loyalty be redefined instead?

The notion of commitment should be redefined over time. Contract terms can be revised more frequently. We are moving towards more transparency. With sites like Glassdoor or Vault, we can find out a lot about the reality of work conditions in the company before even making a commitment. We are in a system where workers evaluate the company as much as the company evaluates them. That explains why “Great Place to Work” rankings are so popular these days. For companies, it means they can no longer just advertise values. The rise of the number of self-employed amplifies this phenomenon: they choose their customers just as much as they are chosen by them.

Platforms like Hopwork help companies recruit the right profiles much more easily. There is talk of lower transaction costs thanks to platforms. However, some companies find it very difficult to recruit certain profiles, especially for IT and data science, even on a freelance basis. Why is that?

In a way, we are witnessing the return of the so-called “sublime workers”, these self-employed workers of the 19th century, highly qualified and much sought-after, who were masters of mobility and their own commitments. They only admitted to work for a period of time that they themselves determined and they chose their own boss. Freelancers are reminiscent of this “sublime” economy.

Some freelancers, hyper-specialists or not, have become stars. They are the best in their category. Companies are dependent on them, in the same way that, in the industrial sector, they can be very dependent on subcontractors.

In the age of freelancing, what should job training look like?

I very much believe in the rebirth of alliances to “sublimate” work life. If labor laws allowed it, platforms could play this role, train workers to increase their skills and build up their own loyalty. In an increasingly unstable labor market, platforms could recreate stability by offering services to freelancers and by acting as agents!

Malt is the leader in company-freelance matchmaking services in Europe.

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